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Cannes 2024 – ‘Santosh’ – Brit Sandhya Suri’s first fiction feature film is absorbing procedural

Cannes 2024 – ‘Santosh’ – Brit Sandhya Suri’s first fiction feature film is absorbing procedural

A crime story essentially this packs in a lot…

SET in the Badlands of northern india (almost its official description), this is a film that will churn your emotions this way and that, before arriving at a slightly predictable place.

It has a lot going for it – at least from a Western gaze – we say that because for some Indian audiences, this comes across a little as tried, tested and somewhat already delivered.

That there are unseen and bad forces – that sometimes appear benign – but aren’t in reality, is not something that has been recently discovered.

In fact, one could argue that Indian filmmakers are more sophisticated and subtle but let’s leave that all aside, as it is more about how you come to view and analyse a film, than simply watching and enjoying it (and more often than not, forgetting about it).

As we said, there is a lot to admire here from British woman director Sandhya Suri’s first feature.
She has made shorts and documentaries before but this is her first foray into full length fiction and we must say it is exciting and promising – to have her among the selections at Cannes with what is essentially her first fiction feature is a grand achievement and should be applauded.

Santosh’ revolves around the central character predictably enough – Santosh herself played by the experienced and talented Shahana Goswami.

At the beginning of the film, we find she has been bereaved and that her husband is a local cop.

It isn’t clear what kind of work (if any) she was involved in previously but under a special scheme, she can apply for a position within the police on compassionate grounds.

She gets approval and meets the formidable Sharma (Sunita Rajwar) – a woman police chief of considerable experience and charisma – and Sharma decides to take the new recruit under her wing.

They both have a lot of time and respect for each other – and there is a good vibe as both colleagues and professionals and two women who like each other and don’t mind spending time in each other’s company. There is possibly a sexual element too on the part of the older woman, but Santosh shows no interest in that.

There is one beautiful scene where Sharma is driving (and smoking – rebellious Indian women do) and has a famous Bollywood track (now released as just as a clip on Youtube – see link and details below) on the car audio system and we see Sharma’s sentimental and arty side and Santosh herself warms to it.

The tone changes somewhat when a rape and murder investigation begin – a 15 year old low caste (Dalit) girl has been found in a village and the crime has sparked outrage and horror and there is pressure for the perpetrator(s) to be brought to book quickly – this is often the case in reality.

Santosh begins the investigation with Sharma watching and guiding her every step.

A suspect is identified and his movements are monitored – Muslim, young (maybe 17 or 18) and a casual agricultural worker, he seems shifty and evasive.

He is quickly identified as the only suspect and is taken away from formal police custody to a house where the normal rules of interrogation don’t apply.

The religious dimension is important we learn only later really – being from a minority group, there is prejudice and suspicion and it is established he did have contact with the girl murdered.
You can see where this is all going without any of this really being spelt out – Santosh goes along with Sharma’s analysis and this is an open and shut case and everyone can go back to what they were doing…

Well, not quite – but we don’t want to say too much as a lot revolves around certain assumptions that prove to be misleading…

Beautifully acted with Goswami and Rajwar excelling and Suri showing great skill and maturity behind the camera, there is much to enjoy and admire.

Where it perhaps slightly lets itself is down, is that in the end, it rests on familiar cliches and tropes and for some Indian audiences – and unlike ‘The Shameless’ which also showed in the same Un Certain Regard section, it is more likely to get a big screen release in India) – it might seem a little pat and uninspired – as a drama.

Nevertheless, Suri is a talented and able director and if she can avoid some of the rather obvious plotlines in a police drama of this type, she has a wonderful future as a director with something bold and interesting to say about women, and women at work, police investigations in India and minority rights.

ACV rating: ***½ (Out of five)

The film, ‘Santosh’ had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, May 20 (May 14-25).

Picture: Santosh (centre, Shahana Goswami) in ‘Santosh’

Santosh clip – music credit –

Wapas Kardo Meri Neend
Suresh Wadkar, Asha Bhosle
Dil Ne Ikraar Kiya (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture